Roman Food & Drink

 


TABLE OF CONTENTS


I'm always amazed at how similar yet different the Romans of the Late Republic are to us. Despite a 2000 year difference, their food, drink, and meal habits almost seem modern . . . but not quite.

What follows is mostly a tabular synopsis of what kinds of bread, vegetables, fruit, and drink the Romans of the Late Roman Republic were accustomed to as well as a couple of short tables showing how everyday meals and fancy dinner parties were different from one another.

We'll start with food first . . .

Only the rich could afford a steady diet of meat. So wheat (known to the Romans as "corn" [frumentum]) was the staple food of most Romans. They mostly ate it as a boiled porridge, sometimes adding flavorings or relishes to it. They had desserts too. And, of course, bread was a staple.

 

TYPES OF BREAD

Bread varied in quality depending on the flour, which varied with the kind of grain, the setting of the millstones and the fineness of the sieves. The very best bread was made from wheat flour; the very worst from bran alone. Loaves were circular and somewhat flat, like a coffee cake.

NAME

WHAT IT WAS

OTHER NOTES

libae

smaller rolls

panis primus

cheap, coarse grain bread

panis secundus

bread one step above Panis Primus

panis plebeius

bread of coarse wheat flour

"common bread"

panis castrensis

?

"army bread"

panis sordidus

?

"dark bread"

panis rusticus

bread of bran alone

"country bread"

Picenian bread

fine biscuits

siligineus

white bread

Notes:

  • Legumes (beans, green peas, chick peas, lentils, etc.) were sometimes added to bread


I'm not sure whether panis primus and secundus equate to one or more of the next four types of bread in the table. Nor am I sure of what panis castrensis and sordidus consisted of. And, as yet, I haven't run across a Latin term for Picenian bread. So if any one as a source you can direct me to for answers to these questions, please
contact me.

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Ever wonder what kinds of fruits the Romans ate? Well here's some of the more common ones:

COMMON FRUITS

almonds

plums

apples

pomegranates

figs

quinces

filberts

walnuts

grapes

chestnuts

pears

Notes:

  • Apricots, cherries, dates, lemons, and oranges weren't grown in Italy until the Prinicipate
  • Berries were rarely eaten
  • Fruits were eaten raw, dried, preserved, and cooked; fruits were dried or preserved for winter use

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What vegetables did the Romans eat? Here they are:

COMMON VEGETABLES

artichokes

garlic

mushrooms

turnips

asparagus

leeks

olives

beans

lentils

onions

beets

lettuce

parsnips

broccoli

mallow leaves

peas

cabbages

marrows

pumpkins

cucumbers

melons

radishes

Notes:

  • Beans, olives, and peas were grown in Italy
  • Broccoli, leeks, artichokes and asparagus were imported
  • Beans and peas were an important part of lower class diets and were sold either dried or--in tabernae or by street vendors--hot
  • Cabbage was believed to prevent drunkenness, cure paralysis, and protect people from the plague
  • Garlic was believed to give soldiers courage
  • Legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, etc.) were also used as cattle feed
  • Lettuce was considered a laxative by the Romans
  • Mallow leaves were considered good for the digestion
  • Olives were eaten plain as well as with other food
  • Olive oil were used both as fuel for lamps and for use in the public baths

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What did the Romans drink? What follows is a list of the more commonly imbibed drinks:

COMMON DRINKS

LATIN NAME

WHAT IT WAS

NOTES

calda

warm water and wine laced with spices

typically a winter drink

mulsum

honeyed wine

posca

vinegar mixed with enough water to make it drinkable

typically a soldier, slave drink

"wine"

watered down wine

the Romans never drank wine straight

Other Notes:

  • Beer was regarded as a barbarian drink (the Celts drank it)
  • Wines were described as black, red, white, or yellow.
  • The best wine producing region in Italy was near the border between Latium and Campania. Vintages produced were: Caecuban, Setian, Falernian, and Massic
  • Sheep or goats' milk were considered uncivilized drinks; they were used mainly for making cheese and for medicinal purposes
  • In every great house, the wine cellar contained glass jars carefully sealed with gypsum, with labels showing when they were laid away.

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When they did eat meats, poultry, and fish, what specifically did the Romans eat? Here's a list:

COMMON MEAT AND FISH

MEATS

FISH

POULTRY

beef & veal

lamb

carp

mackerel

rays

chicken

goose

boar

mutton

catfish

mullet

sardines

crane

ostrich

dormice

sausage

clams

mussels

shark

dove

partridge

goat

snails

crab

octopus

sole

duck

peacock

hare

sucking pig

eel

oysters

swordfish 

fig-peckers

pheasant

kid

venison

flounder

perch

trout

flamingo

pigeon

hake

porpoise

tuna

thrushes

lobster

prawns

turbot

Notes:

  • The poor could seldom afford to buy meat
  • Meat was more often boiled than roasted with spicy sauces
  • Pork was considered a great delicacy.
  • Stuffed dormice were considered a delicacy too. Usually the dormice were stuffed with minced pork, pepper, pine kernels, and liquamen.

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Sugar was unknown to the Romans; honey was their main sweetener. They also used other sauces and spices to add flavor to the food they ate:

SAUCES/SPICES

NAME

WHAT IT WAS

OTHER NOTES

defrutum

concentrated wine was used in cooking.

liquamen (aka garum)

made from salted fish and fish insides

may have been the ancestor of Worcestershire Sauce

pepper

imported from the East; used a lot in all sorts of foods including some sweet baked biscuits

salt

harvested from beds at Ostia

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Here's a partial list of foods that the Romans never used:

FRUITS, VEGETABLES, AND OTHER FOODS

UNKNOWN TO THE ROMANS

bananas

corn (as we know it)

sugar

chili pepper

peanuts

tea

chocolate

potatoes

tomatoes

coffee

rice

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The ordinary Roman was not a great eater of meats. The table below shows their typical meals:

MEALS

 LATIN NAME

MODERN U.S. COUNTERPART

TIME

TYPICAL FOOD SERVED

OTHER NOTES

jentaculum

breakfast

at sunrise or the first hour

Wheat pancake biscuit; bread dipped in wine; bread flavored with a little cheese, dried fruits or honey; or bread with salt, honey, dates, or olives

Not all Romans began their day with breakfast. Often breakfast was no more than a cup of water

prandium

lunch

around the sixth hour

Eggs, with bread and cheese or leftovers from the previous day

cena

dinner

around the ninth or tenth hour

 Wheat meal porridge (puls)

Meat (pork, mutton, beef) was scarce except at sacrifices and dinner parties of the rich. Fish was more common.

Roman Legionaries followed a carefully supervised diet. Their diet was a balanced one of wheat, some meat (usually bacon), fish, poultry, cheese, vegetables, fruit, salt, olive oil, and wine.

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ANATOMY OF A ROMAN DINNER PARTY

Roman dinner parties were similar but more sumptuous than those of today. Hors d'oeuvres were served, followed by six or seven main courses, then several kinds of dessert, with a lot of drinking underscoring the whole affair before, during and after the actual dinner. A small army of slaves usually dealt with the whims of the guests as well as serving watered down wine throughout the proceedings. Some hosts served their best wine to start with and then lesser vintages as guests became more intoxicated. In the early days of Rome, women were discouraged from drinking wine altogether, unless it was well watered down, but this stricture was dropped during the empire. At any dinner party it was considered polite to belch.

PHASE OF THE DINNER PARTY

LATIN NAME

TYPICAL FOOD SERVED

 OTHER NOTES

Hors d'oeuvres

gustatio or promulsio

Salads, radishes, mushrooms, eggs, oysters, sardines

followed an initial drink of wine sweetened with honey

Main Course

prima mensa

Fish included eel, turbot, mackerel, tunny, mullet, eels, prawns, oysters, other shellfish. Poultry dishes included: chicken, goose, ostrich, crane, duck, partridge, pheasant, pigeon, dove, thrushes, fig-peckers, and--for the rich--peacock. Meat included boar, venison, wild goat, mutton, lamb, kid, sucking pig, hare, dormice, and sausage

Offerring to the Household Gods

?

None

Involved a short silence while an offering of wheat, salt, and wine was made to the household gods on the family altar

Dessert

secunda mensa

every kind of honey-sweetened cakes and fruit.

Two favorite desserts were stuffed dates and honeyed bread; another was poppy-seeds mixed with honey.

After Dinner Drinking and Entertainment

?

Wine mixed with water

During the rest of the party, music, song, dancing girls, conjurors, dwarfs, and acrobats were sometimes provided as entertainment

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Copyright 1998 Rich Hamper 

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Last Updated:

Sunday, January 20, 2008